The glaciers were roaring. In the never-night of the Alaskan spring, between daytime slides and evening storms, Sheldon Kerr and her ski partner, Jessica Baker, were partway up the 7,000-foot South Face of 14,470-foot University Peak, deep in the Wrangell-St. Elias, the biggest and most remote national park in the country.
Paul Claus, the only bush pilot who flies into that range, had dropped Baker and her gear off on the glacier, then left her there for two days before another weather window opened and he could drop Kerr. They walked through boot-deep, clear blue water until they set up camp on the glacial layer of ice at the base of the peak.
Only 131 Americans have become fully certified guides and less than 10 percent are women, according to the AMGA, the U.S. arm of the global IFMGA.
For 11 days in May, Kerr and Baker tried to time the climb: skin up in the narrow window of dusk when the snow firmed up, moving carefully through icefall and crevasses, switch to ski crampons, then to ice tools as the face got steeper. The plan was to summit, then ski down in the early morning hours. But storms kept gathering over the peak as they climbed. Every night, they'd hike up a little farther and get shut down. "I would say I'm extremely good at climbing and skiing the bottom 40 percent of that mountain," says Kerr.
Kerr, 32, is extremely good at many hard and potentially impossible things. She's in the process of becoming a fully certified IFMGA guide—on her way to joining 12 women in the U.S. to ever achieve that. She's one of a small number of ski mountaineers attempting ambitious projects like University. For Kerr, rare descents and hard objectives are more than personal goals. She's pushing to make the guiding world more inclusive to women. Her tactics include leaning on the guides association to change practices (like requiring guide companies to reveal salaries to help close the gender pay gap) and fight ingrained biases and deep-seated stereotypes. She also focuses on being a role model and mentor to other women in the guiding world.
University is aesthetic and all but inaccessible. Chris Davenport has called it "one of the most challenging, pure, beautiful lines in North America."
"What's so unique of Sheldon is that she's such a staunch supporter of women and being really strong about it in places like AMGA, where women's advocacy has been nonexistent until the last year," says Baker, a guide who has first descents in the U.S. and Alaska. Kerr cold-called Baker to ask if she wanted to ski University. "She's not afraid to speak up," says Baker. "She's a big advocate but not in an overbearing way, and she stays with it. I think things are starting to change; she has been a bit of a force."
Kerr grew up in Vermont in a family that encouraged adventures, but she didn't start skiing seriously until she moved to Colorado for college. She went into the mountains full bore. At 20, she summited Denali with a college friend, undeterred by the fact that she'd never climbed before planning the trip. From there, she started guiding mountaineering trips in Alaska and on Mount Rainier. She wanted to become a pro skier, too. She moved to Crested Butte in 2007 and earned a spot in the U.S. Freeskiing World Championships, but she balked while on course, skied around her line, and decided to find another way to make a living on skis.
"I was a little crestfallen for a bit," she says. "But I decided I could either do that or figure out how else you get to be a pro skier. So I thought: What do I have that's special and different? I've fallen in a lot of crevasses. I've guided a lot of multi-week mountaineering trips. I know that I possess the capability to suffer. So I did a 180 and said let's become a quiet professional instead."
She got a job guiding at Silverton in 2009 and started working her way though the guiding curriculum.
When I called Kerr to see if I could come ski with her in Jackson, where she'd moved from Silverton to work for Exum Guides, she promised she'd take me into something a little scary. "We're going to be the best ski mountaineering feminists in the universe," she says in her typical tone of big-hearted sarcasm.
By the time I side-slipped down to the anchor, I was chap-lipped and shaky-legged, an hour past a snack I should have had but didn't, and wedge turning my way into a couloir called Chuter Buck in Grand Teton National Park. Kerr was basically singing. "Good job," she trilled, as I tried to unclench before the rappel. Kerr likes to live between the growth zone and the cry zone, she told me.
Becoming a guide is a strenuous, years-long, expensive, mentally and physically challenging process. She supports herself by guiding and doing ski patrol work, and she receives a small amount of financial support from sponsors. Only 131 Americans have become fully certified guides and less than 10 percent are women, according to the AMGA, the U.S. arm of the global IFMGA. To complete the certification, you need to pass 10 skill exams in skiing, rock and ice climbing, and alpine mountaineering; Kerr has passed six and she's slated to knock off two more this fall. She's the only woman in most of her exams.
Gender equality is part of a slow, important tidal change in the guiding world, where women are becoming more empowered.
Guiding and undertaking expeditions at the highest level takes a singular commitment to life in the mountains. It can be dangerous—Kerr has lost a mentor, Gary Falk, and a best friend, Eitan Green, who both died while guiding. It directly conflicts with the schedule of a traditional domestic life, both daily and in the long term; and it's harder for women to find role models, mentors, and ski partners because there are so few working toward guide certification, which is what she says is the biggest barrier to getting more females in the profession. It's the one she's trying to break down by arranging all-female expeditions and pushing on the AMGA to formalize female mentorship programs. Caroline George, who in 2010 became the seventh American woman to receive IFMGA certification, says that gender equality is part of a slow, important tidal change in the guiding world, where women are becoming more empowered and have more female role models, and male guides are becoming aware of the issue. "We are living in a shift at the moment," says George.
The lack of female mentorship manifests itself in subtle, deeply ingrained ways. "It's such a physically intimate sport, and men don't ask women to go on expeditions because there's a level of it being inappropriate," says Kerr, adding that she's had uncomfortable interactions with the wives of her male climbing partners because of the implied intimacy of spending nights together on an expedition. "Think of how many dudes had older dude mentors and how strange that might be for a girl. I don't see myself having the same kind of informal learning opportunities. Or maybe your [romantic] partner is your mentor. So many of the fully certified women are married to other guides."
The physical challenge of becoming a guide is also a hurdle. Of the guiding skills, skiing has always been her strongest, and she struggled initially to feel competent as a climber. Kerr does brutal climbing workouts designed by a trainer to target specific alpine failure points. She hangs by ice axes for an hour at a time, or climbs laps on a wall with a weighted pack. A long-held assumption depicts that women aren't as strong as men, and Kerr says that when she struggles it's hard to know if it's because she's learning a new skill or she's not fit, or she is a female.
Kerr often downplays her abilities and says that what she's doing isn't that hard, but that it merely takes a combination of drive, aspiration, skills, and stubbornness to do it all. But on her most recent guide course, an ice instructor course last January, she said she was stronger than a lot of the other male guides, thanks to her punishing workouts.
The next day in Jackson, the snow was spring sloppy, so we went climbing in Hoback Canyon instead of skiing. Afterward, over margaritas and guacamole on a sunny patio, she told me why University Peak felt like the culmination of all her skills and experience, and why she spent the past four years attempting it every spring, fishing for sponsor dollars, and funneling time and effort into an obscure Alaskan peak.
She pulled out her phone and showed me a dramatic black and white photo of its razored ridges. "Don't you look at that and gasp and say, 'That's kind of sick, but I think I could do it?'" she asked.
University is aesthetic and all but inaccessible. Chris Davenport has called it "one of the most challenging, pure, beautiful lines in North America." A shot taken the first time it was skied by Lorne Glick and John Whedon in 2001 is the cover of Fifty Classic Ski Descents of North America, the visual Bible of ski mountaineering. Since then, that same route has been skied less than a handful of times, and no ski descent has been recorded from the summit—the route Kerr is attempting.
"If there's a bigger picture motivation to climb and ski University Peak, that's it," says Kerr. "I want to be able to show what it means to me to be a skier, spending so much time staring at Google Earth and maps, and building up these skills, enduring and dealing with glacial melt or catastrophic icefall. Women's skiing is not one thing."
Kerr flew by University when she was 22, on her way to guide a neighboring peak, Mount Bona. "It looked untouchable. At first it never would have occurred to me to ski it, but over the next few years, I kept getting a look at it and my relationships changed," she says. She guided Mount Bona six more times over subsequent summers and started to trace the hyper-aesthetic ski line on the face of University, becoming increasingly obsessed.
"Only about three parties a year go into the Wrangell-St. Elias, there's only one pilot, and the closest people who can help you are in Anchorage, three different weather systems and 1,000 miles away," says Kerr. "You might be the only party on that route, and on that mountain, and in the range, in the largest protected wilderness area on the planet, trying to climb some fucked-up face. It's like you're drowning in loneliness."
The first time Kerr attempted to ski University, with Lindsay Mann and Erin Smart, the mountain was an un-skiable sheet of blue ice. The next year, she went in with Emilie Drinkwater, Krystle Wright, and Baker and had the opposite problem. "The glacier melted a month ahead of schedule, April felt like June," she says.
Risk and rejection, especially from factors beyond your control, are a big part of the world she lives in. As a climber, she struggled for a long time with thinking about her body as a tool, with finding her place in the mountaineering community after breaking up with a boyfriend who was a guide. "Work is so much emotion regulation," she says. "It's really hard to have your feelings shaken up, then have to go on a job that so depends on your ability to make decisions."
When we were skiing in the Tetons, I asked her if she ever got scared, because she seemed so deeply unfazed by things I found terrifying. "I think about it all the time," says Kerr. "Especially when I'm with clients, I think, 'If we were to die today, how would we do it?' I don't want to die in a way that would embarrass my parents."
That's why, every night on the glacier with Baker, she turned around, because the biggest, most genderless part of being a guide is knowing how to make good decisions and coming home safe from perilous places. Kerr leads by example, showing that more women should be in the field.
"If there's a bigger picture motivation to climb and ski University Peak, that's it," she says. "I want to be able to show what it means to me to be a skier, spending so much time staring at Google Earth and maps, and building up these skills, enduring and dealing with glacial melt or catastrophic icefall. Women's skiing is not one thing."